Should the United Nations Protect Religions from Defamation?

Should the United Nations Protect Religions from Defamation?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
April 17, 2009

Suddenly, I find myself in an awkward and uncomfortable position.  I find that I must agree with Peter Singer on an issue of importance.  This requires some soul-searching.

Peter Singer teaches bioethics at Princeton University and is one of the most influential figures in the animal rights movement worldwide. He is also, in my judgment, one of the most frighteningly radical and dangerous thinkers of our times, holding such a low view of human dignity that he would defend infanticide on the grounds that the human infant (and toddler) has not yet acquired the hallmarks of human dignity.  The very idea that any human being has to acquire capacities in order to be granted personhood is reprehensible.  The suggestion that some animals possess a greater right to life over some humans is immoral on its face.  It is a moral scandal that Peter Singer teaches at Princeton University — or in any credible academic institution.

Yet, when he is right, he is right.  Intellectual integrity requires that we evaluate ideas and truth claims on the basis of their truthfulness and credibility, and not on the basis of who asserts the idea or claim.

Writing in The Guardian [London], Singer goes after a resolution recently adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The resolution, put forth by representatives of Muslim-dominated member nations, calls for the “defamation of religion” to be considered a human rights violation — a crime.  The only religion mentioned in the text of the resolution is Islam.

As Singer explains, “The resolution was originally proposed by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and was put to the human rights council by Pakistan. It supports that it was aimed at such things as the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper three years ago.”

Now, the Islamic states want to make the “defamation of religion” a human rights violation.  The language of the resolution is expressed in diplomatic fog, but the intent is nonetheless clear.  The resolution speaks of recognizing “the valuable contribution of all religions to modern civilization and the contribution that dialogue among civilizations can make towards improved awareness and understanding of the common values shared by all humankind.”  The resolution then goes on to express its concern “that defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, could lead to social disharmony and violations of human rights, and alarmed at the inaction of some States to combat this burgeoning trend and the resulting discriminatory practices against adherents of certain religions and in this context stressing the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular.”

Again and again, Islam is referenced as the only religion singled out for protection against defamation.  The reason for this is central to the identity of Islam, which is an honor religion.  Thus, in the Muslim dominated world, blasphemy is a serious legal matter.

Anti-blasphemy laws have a long history.  Classical Christianity must take both blasphemy and heresy seriously, of course, but the church should not call upon the state to prosecute charges of blaspheming God or corrupting the truth of the Gospel. Heresy and blasphemy must be answered by the church, not by the state.

As Peter Singer reported, “Germany opposed the resolution. Speaking on behalf of the European Union, a German spokesperson rejected the concept of ‘defamation of religion’ as not valid in a human rights context, because human rights belonged to individuals, not to institutions or religions.”

Germany is right in this case, as is Peter Singer.  Singer, we should note, is motivated to oppose blasphemy laws because they would threaten secularists.  Christians should oppose the same laws on very different grounds — including the imperative of sharing the Gospel with all persons everywhere.  Bold witness to the Gospel of Christ will be considered offensive to other belief systems under the wording of this United Nations resolution.

Singer summarized his argument by insisting that, “while attempts to stir up hatred against adherents of a religion, or to incite violence against them, may legitimately be suppressed, criticism of religion as such should not be.”

From the very beginning of the Christian church, believers have had to bear the offense of the cross.  Our Lord was Himself despised and rejected of men, ridiculed and scorned.  So also were His apostles, and all who would follow Christ faithfully.

We are called to defend the faith, but not to defend the honor of the faith, much less our own honor.  We are confident of this:  God will vindicate His own name, and Christ will judge the nations in righteousness.  Until then, we are not to seek laws that protect our beliefs from defamation.  Instead, we must seek laws that protect our right to share and to preach the Gospel.

This United Nations Human Rights Council resolution offends Peter Singer, and it offends me as well.  The United Nations has no right to protect adherents of any religious belief system from being offended.  It should expend its energies defending the religious liberty of all persons everywhere.  That policy would put the offense where it belongs.

UPDATE:  We discussed this issue on the Friday, April 17, 2009 edition of The Albert Mohler Program.  Listen here.

UPDATE:  Here is a good editorial on the issue from The Economist [London].  Read it here.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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